Sydney Brenner on The DNA Discovery in Context: Achieving Greatness
  Sydney Brenner     Biography    
Recorded: 10 Jun 2002

Well, you see, I think this is—I think you have to realize another thing, you see. That the whole of this DNA and all the developments came about in a period which I think is new. It is the age of the celebrity.

I think it starts really with Kennedy’s coming to power, the sixties, you see. So there—from now on we had celebrities. We had people whether they were arts or science or everything. You see, prior to that we just had all those boring old men who played golf with Eisenhower. But afterwards we had artists, scientists, writers, all coming together—it’s a tremendous period. And I think both Jim and Francis, you know, sort of contributed to that new period. That this was—everything was going to be changed. There was this terrible war, everything was drab. When I went to England and—you see people forget. In 1953 there was still food rationing in England, at the time of DNA, and Jim came and he ate our entire ration of sugar and candy—you know, we couldn’t buy cakes. You had to give coupons to buy cakes. So for my son’s birthday party Jim came and ate all the cakes. He had a sweet tooth. He likes desserts. So, but I think that’s a period that’s very hard to think back on it.

I think sometimes it’s to try and tell people of this, you have to say: is this a role model? So how many times for young people, you know, will it be they could just get together with another guy and have a few conversations and they changed the face of science. This is very rare. So young people should—I think the important thing that I think could be done those ways is to be a heretic, sorry—to be heretical, but to be a heretic, that is to do things which are not mainstream. That’s what those two people did. It was not mainstream for Jim with his background to go to a physics lab. I mean that’s not mainstream at all. That he chose to do it and I always say that, to young people that it’s doing something different that gives you the chance to take a new look. In fact, I also think it’s quite useful to have a high level of ignorance about the subject. If you know too much then you don’t try new things. And in that sense, I think its not so much the—you know, its very hard to dissociate the individual from the historical event, if you know what I mean because it was all wrapped up together at a very interesting time. You have to remember that very shortly after this America discovered, because Russians put Sputnik up, that they were very behind in science and so the big drive came. And I think it has done that.

Sydney Brenner is a pioneer in the field of molecular biology. He was born in South Africa in 1927 and received his Ph.D. from Oxford University in 1954. From 1979 to 1986 he served as Director of the Medical Research Council Laboratory for Molecular Biology and from 1986 to 1991, as the Director of the Medical Research Council Laboratory Molecular Genetics Unit, both in Cambridge, England.

Since 1996 he has been the President and Director of Science at the Molecular Sciences Institute in La Jolla and Berkeley. Brenner was honored as a Distinguished Research Professor at the Salk Institute in La Jolla in 2000.

In 2002 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine with Dr. John Sulston and Dr. Robert Horvitz “for their discoveries concerning ‘genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death’” studying the organism C. elegans.